Home World Asia Natasha Stott Despoja: ‘Jacinda Ardern is the leader NZ needed in its darkest days’

Natasha Stott Despoja: ‘Jacinda Ardern is the leader NZ needed in its darkest days’


The grace and poise of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has comforted us all. Her courage and composure have captured world attention.

Apparently, one male commentator quipped that we should be thanking her speech writer. But her eloquence, let alone her compassion, are not at someone’s artful direction.

What we have seen is instinctive grief and empathy for her people.

How leaders react in a crisis is so often how we judge them. From the uneasy pats on the back that some of our leaders have doled out in times of tragedy, to the awkward bear hugs or even heartfelt tears, it’s sometimes hard for public figures to be seen as authentic.

Prime Minister Ardern seems to have got it right every time, especially in New Zealand’s ‘darkest days’.

Australians admire her integrity. Some express their envy.

She created history, or herstory, by becoming one of the world’s youngest ever leaders and the youngest living Prime Minister.

She then made a different type of history when she had a child while Prime Minister. She is only the second elected head of government to give birth in office, after former Pakistan Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto.

The debate that raged around Ms Ardern’s pregnancy was global. Her suitability for office was part of that debate, at times explicitly and implicitly.

She was subject to questions about whether or not a mother could be a full-time Prime Minister, what role her husband would play, whether she should have told people earlier, how much maternity leave she would take, and whether that duration was appropriate. She was even asked about when she conceived her child.

The list of questions, insinuations and even criticism went on and on and revealed something we have always known: Women are still held to a different standard than men when it comes to public life generally and in politics specifically.

In recent days, some commentators have attributed Jacinda Ardern’s empathy to her status as a mother.

Not only does this smack of a biological determinism that is not necessarily relevant in political discourse, it overlooks the reality that anyone can display understanding and kindness. You don’t have to be a parent to feel things keenly.

Ms Ardern is multi-faceted. She has different roles and responsibilities but the qualities she espouses are human qualities.

There is nothing to stop our elected leaders exemplifying the same characteristics and abilities, in times of division and pain, or in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

That they sometimes choose not to do so or seem incapable of doing so, has little to do with biology.

While some standards may have improved when it comes how we portray women in politics, the notion that motherhood is an impediment to performance or that women in the workforce or elsewhere can be judged by their parental status still lingers.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that former Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan had to apologise to former PM Julia Gillard for calling her “deliberately barren”.

I remark in my book On Violence that after I had my first child (Conrad) while I was in office, one Senator called me “Mother” for the rest of my Senate term. Despite pointing out that I preferred to be called by my name (who would have thought?), he defined me by my parental status.

When it comes to politics, women still find that they can’t win: You can be judged if you do have children and judged if you do not.

Jacinda Ardern is helping to redefine leadership. Men and women could follow her example.

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